(2009)4.5Nathan SouthernThe statistics are mind-boggling: China now claims a population of 1.34 billion individuals, or roughly 20% of the Earth's people. Of those residents, 130 million drones toil daily in sweatshops, manufacturing garments for their fellow countrymen. These are the lowest rungs on the economic ladder - the men and women who have migrated from rural to urban areas, seeking an improved quality of life for themselves and/or their children, only to pour sweat and blood into hard labor, grinding the cogs that support the country's sprawling commercial sector. The burdens of these jobs far outweigh the benefits: the laborers must endure unconscionable hours for execrable wages.
On its surface, Lixin Fan's documentary Last Train Home visits this dark underbelly of Chinese industrialization, though the film transcends the apparent limitations of its subject. By providing intimate glimpses into the lives of one family of garment workers who are caught up in an infernal economic cycle, Fan takes what could have been a dispassionate, academic sociological tome and elicits a stunning human dimension from the material.
The film's two main subjects are Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin, a husband and wife in their late thirties or early forties. Fifteen years prior, the two relocated from a family farm to the city of Guangzhou, roughly 2000 kilometers away from home. The move itself enabled the couple to support son Yang and daughter Qin and maintain the homestead in absentia. The children, we learn, have been raised on the farm by their feeble grandparents, and only see their mother and father once per annum - when mom and dad make the 2000 mile trek home for the Chinese New Year. Because of the geographic parent-child separation, the kids have grown up sans a well-defined sense of the sacrifices that their parents continue to make for them on a daily basis, and without the parental influence that would guide them through a proper education and away from the life of uneducated blue collar migrant workers. Herein lies the foremost of the story's many sad ironies: the source of the economic sustenance that supports the kids also necessitates parental absence, and without a mom and dad to keep them in line, the directionless children may drift right back into the hard-scrabble lives that their parents have struggled to keep them out of.
Fan begins the story at a critical juncture, when 16-year-old daughter Qin considers and then undertakes an act of juvenile rebellion that could ruin the rest of her life: she drops out of school and moves to Guangzhou herself, accepting the same job that her parents have taken. This of course breaks the hearts of the mother and father, and we realize that their worst fears have materialized before them. Distraught and horrified, they struggle to persuade Qin to return to school - but how can she be expected to believe in the guidance of parents she has never known, and in whom she has such precious little faith? The future of son Yang seems less determined; perhaps he can still be saved.
This film benefits from an underlying emotional fragility that feels revelatory. It is unclear exactly how Fan managed to achieve such a close rapport with his subjects, but however it occurred, we're struck repeatedly by the lack of pretense, the absence of any signs that the participants are playing up for the camera - as well as the unaffected ease with which these individuals let us into the shifting dramatic currents of their lives. The immediacy that takes center stage is so trenchant, in fact, that when Qin finally breaks down before the camera (amid a family quarrel) and screams at Fan, "Now are you satisfied?! Now you've seen the real me!" The effect is ironic: we've already seen "the real Qin" for 70 minutes, having come to know and understand her youthful limitations and vulnerabilities - particularly her lack of introspective insight and poor foresight - on a level that she cannot possibly conceive. Equally striking is father Changhua's more subtle transition: though he bottles his emotions inside to the point of opacity, per Chinese cultural traditions - a smile frozen on his face even when he is confronted with the most devastating events - we finally watch that shell crack before our eyes. Tangible sorrow emerges and tears stream down his face in response to the cyclical tragedy that now enmeshes the family - the emotions themselves exponentially more intense because he has suppressed them for many years
To his credit, Fan refuses to even hint at a solution to the towering crisis that the film observes. We begin with a modern economic travesty, witness the fallout on an interpersonal level, and are left with a sense of resounding heartbreak. At the center of it all is a family that seems permanently destined to struggle, like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill for all of eternity. The tension between this horror and the humanist compassion that Fan radiates makes Last Train Home one of the most remarkable and emotionally overwhelming documentary experiences in memory
Changhua Zhang and Suqin Chen are a couple from a rural village in China's Sichuan province. Frustrated with their lack of employment opportunities, they traveled to the industrial city of Guangdong and took jobs with a large textile firm, making clothing for export. However, Changhua and Suqin were not able to bring their two children with them, and since then the kids have been raised by their grandparents, with their mother and father staying in touch though occasional telephone calls. The only time they have a chance to see their now-teenage children is during China's annual New Year's celebration; they are among the 130 million Chinese whose work keeps them away from their families and make the trip home during the holiday, resulting in an overcrowded rail system as the trains struggle to keep up with the rush. Filmmaker Lixin Fan follows Changhua and Suqin over the course of several years in the documentary Last Train Home, as the couple makes the long journey home (over a thousand miles) only to find that their family is slowly falling apart -- 16-year-old Qin and her younger brother, Yang, are all but strangers now to their parents, and the youngsters have come to resent their parents, while Qin considers leaving school to move to the city on her own and get a job. Last Train Home received its world premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.